Advertisement

Trump's 'space force' could propel Southern California's aerospace industry

Trump's 'space force' could propel Southern California's aerospace industry
A Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on March 30. (Matt Hartman / Associated Press)

One of the big winners from President Trump’s push for a new military service called “space force” may be one of his least favorite places — California.

Once the launchpad of the nation’s aerospace industry, Southern California stands to see a surge in government and industry jobs and billions of dollars in contracts for satellites and other technology if Congress approves the space force when it takes up the proposal next year, industry experts and former military officials said.

Advertisement

“You can’t just go out in the middle of Iowa and try to create a center for space,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a retired Air Force officer. “So Southern California is very well situated” to get substantial benefits.

The extent of the benefits would depend on where the headquarters is located, how much is spent on new satellites and other space systems, and how many people and programs now in the Air Force and other existing armed services might be shifted to the new force.

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis said Tuesday that planners have just begun preparing cost estimates. “We’ve already commenced the effort, but I don’t want to give you an off-the-cuff number,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.

The biggest uncertainty is whether Trump or Congress would try to direct the rewards to other states. The president has visited California only once since taking office, and his administration has warred with Sacramento on fuel efficiency standards, clean air regulations, firefighting techniques and more.

“Southern California remains the largest concentration of space technology, including military space technology, in the United States,” said Loren Thompson, aerospace analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank, which receives money from major industry players, including Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

“But when you set up a new military service, you increase the impact of politics in ways that might not necessarily be good for California,” he added.

Colorado and Florida, which also boast extensive civilian and military aerospace facilities, could be big winners too.

The White House says it will unveil its plan for a space force early next year. For now, the Pentagon is taking interim steps, including creation of a Space Command in the Air Force to centralize planning for war fighting in space.

Congressional approval of Trump’s idea for a futuristic armed force for space is by no means certain. Key lawmakers, some Pentagon officials and senior commanders, especially in the Air Force, fear losing responsibility and budgetary authority for space.

Pentagon officials say building the space force as a sixth armed service — alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — is likely to cost billions of dollars for uniforms, vehicles, buildings, training facilities, communications and all the other administrative trappings of a new command structure and personnel.

Lawmakers who support the space force idea say one of their goals is to hike Pentagon spending on acquisition of satellites and other space systems. Some of that money is virtually certain to flow through Southern California’s burgeoning aerospace sector.

Another beneficiary is likely to be the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo, a facility with more than 5,000 military and civilian personnel. It has an unclassified annual budget of about $7 billion — out of a total Air Force budget of $8.5 billion for building and launching satellites and other space systems — and an unknown classified budget.

If a space force is created, the El Segundo center is likely to be shifted into the new service, current and former officials say, to take advantage of decades of experience at building and overseeing satellites.

That could boost employment at the center, which has seen its workforce drop to its lowest in two decades, according to a 2017 study by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation that was provided to Congress.

Advertisement

The local expertise also will make it difficult to shift the center’s mission to an entirely new facility or organization in another state, its supporters say.

“You can’t just up and move all these rocket scientists and very smart individuals, because they’re not going to move,” said Lieu. “They’ll retire.”

California is also home to Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, a key military facility for satellite launches and home to a missile defense battery.

Industry stalwarts such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Raytheon Co. all have crucial facilities in the state, as do commercial space firms including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, which has recently increased its share of national security launch awards.

“Those companies and those areas that already have established space presence and the ability to develop things in space are going to be the first places that probably would benefit,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, who held several Pentagon acquisition jobs before retiring last year.

Colorado and Florida are two prime candidates. Air Force Space Command is based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, close to Schriever Air Force Base’s 50th Space Wing, which heads operations and support of 185 Defense Department satellites. And Florida’s Space Coast is home to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base, key for launches.

Air Force space programs have been plagued for decades by cost overruns and delays. Spending on new satellites has plummeted to the lowest level in 30 years, according to the same 2017 Pentagon study.

Space force advocates say the new service is needed because Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries are building anti-satellite and other weapons that can threaten the U.S. military’s space dominance. Critics say a new military service will add bureaucracy at the Pentagon without easing the danger in space.

Southern California has been a major player in the aerospace industry since the early 20th century. During World War II, the region’s aircraft manufacturing plants employed 2 million people, according to the book “Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California.”

Thousands of North American Aviation workers in Downey helped build the Apollo command module during the 1960s space program. But Southern California’s aerospace employment fell sharply after the Cold War ended. Last year, the region had about 90,000 such jobs.

While a space force probably would boost that tally, the industry is unlikely to return to the labor-intensive heyday of decades ago, said Lee Ohanian, professor of economics at UCLA.

“The technology has changed so much in this area where, all things equal, you don’t need as many workers today to create as we did back in the day,” he said. “I think it wouldn’t have so much of a broad effect on the overall economy.”

Advertisement

If Congress creates the space force without increasing the Pentagon budget for satellites and other system military space programs, it might not produce the economic windfall some are expecting.

“If it’s just carved out of the Air Force and other services, it’s a migration of money, rather than an increase,” said Thompson. “We just don’t know exactly where the money would go.”

Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg told analysts during a July earnings call that the increased government interest in space is “good for business” and “creates growth opportunities” for the company.

Lockheed Martin said it “welcomes the administration’s continued focus on space policy and related issues,” noting in a statement that space operations and innovation, especially in the national security sector, are “of paramount importance for our nation.”

Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter said the company was “encouraged by the increased focus on the space domain and its importance to national security” and said the firm would “look forward to supporting the nation’s future needs.”

With all those companies and the Air Force presence, Southern California is a logical hub for the space force, said UCLA’s Ohanian. But politics could get in the way, he warned.

“I don’t think California is the president’s favorite state,” he said.

Advertisement
Advertisement